“Boxing is just show business with blood”
The boxing journeyman is an oft-misunderstood figure in the feudal world of prize fighting. Their presence and role is frequently conflated with that of the other pawns manoeuvred in and out of the front line to protect the king or clear a path for a young rook on boxing’s murky, bloody chess board. But journeymen are in a class of their own.
They are not bums but journeymen know their station. They are one link below gatekeepers in the food chain and, beyond the iconic prospect-contender-champion metamorphosis, there is little upward social mobility in boxing’s class system. In boxing as in chess, pawns can never become kings.
Some are born journeymen, others have it thrust upon them following a fleeting, ill-fated period as a novice. Such is the stigma attached, few could be said to achieve the status. Cinderella Man fairy tales aside, it tends to be a job for the duration of a boxing life.
It is also the lifeblood of boxing. Journeymen are erythrocytes. They are the red blood cells coursing through the fight game’s arteries and veins. In fighting week in week out, they cart oxygen from the beast’s lungs to the rest of its body before returning, bereft of air and choking on the poisonous carbon dioxide that needs expulsed via a promoter’s mouth if the boxing world is to keep on spinning.
Like journeymen, these cells are the most abundant in the bloodstream. For every contender there are tens of journeymen in his wake. Red blood cells are in many respects imperfectly formed. Their faces have shallow bowl-like indentations – formed naturally rather than the result of countless blows from a gloved fist – and a lack of nucleus makes them flexible and adaptable but short on energy and susceptible to damage. They do what they’re told for as long as they are needed. They serve a purpose but there are plenty more where they came from. They are vital, but the infection fighting, antibody creating white cells will always get the glory. They are haematological journeymen.
“If you turn to the light that is burning in the night
Then your journeyman’s day has begun”
(Journeyman: Iron Maiden)
No young fighter enters a gym and steps through the ropes for the first time in pursuit of a journeyman career. As with all young love, the initial dreams are of days in the sun, basking in the glory of victory and greatness. But reality has a way of dominating life’s discourse and snapping your head back to reality like a Larry Holmes jab.
That moment of sudden jarring realisation tends to arrive early in a career. For light welterweight Johnny Greaves, he knew even before he’d begun. At the age of 28, after years dabbling in the polar opposites of the amateur and unlicensed games, Greaves decided to split the difference a turn pro. From the outset he was under no illusions whatsoever.
In Greaves’s own fragile mind he’d achieved nothing in life and had no reason to expect boxing to be any different. Possessing neither the talent to make it to the top, nor the appeal to sell enough tickets to even earn the right to leave base camp and attempt the ascent, he understood his role in the business. He was the guy to take a fight at an hour’s notice. He was the guy to drive the length of the country and back for a grand. He was the guy to give an up-and-comer a workout but not threaten his unbeaten record. He was the glue that held a card together. And to keep his seat under the table from which he could survive on the scraps discarded by billed fighters, Greaves knew that for a journeyman, losing is winning.
He fought, and lost, eight times in the first six months, gracing Dudley Town Hall and the Hippodrome nightclub in Essex along the way. Within two years he’d fought 37 times, winning once against a Latvian who himself had just two victories in 24 contests. Bracknell Leisure Centre and Wolverhampton Civic Hall had been added to his list of venues and he’d gone international with bouts in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland north and south. He was beaten by Floyd Moore, not Mayweather, and Joe Catchpole, not Calzaghe, but he was portraying his character with aplomb and his services continued in high demand. Greaves had skilfully positioned himself as Britain’s number one journeyman.
“Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name
Lord, I can’t go back home this a-way”
(500 Miles: The Journeymen)
Throughout Adam Darke’s excellent documentary, Cornered, Greaves’s screen appearances frequently betray the inherent lack of self-worth that burns within him. He is in many respects the classic East End tough guy; a hard exterior masking a private struggle with a soul racked by doubt and low self-esteem that tortures him from within. There are bursts of bravado of course, but the vulnerability appears more natural. Johnny, as his manager, trainer and elder brother Frank puts it, is a glass half-empty man. He fought in search of an acceptance or validation that he felt was always beyond his reach outside the ring and he appeared unwilling to stop until he found it.
As his record progressed to 96 defeats from 99 fights, the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that boxing was doing Johnny Greaves no favours. That for a man who believes his life has never amounted to much, spending six years getting beaten up 96 times for the pleasure of a baying, paying public is not going to provide the confidence booster he so desperately needs. But to think like that is to misunderstand the essence of the journeyman boxer.
Boxing records can lie. They can lie about the ability of unbeaten prospects and they can certainly lie about the talents and skills of seasoned journeymen. Greaves had all sorts of fights. There were some in which he was out of his league. He was never going to beat the likes of Gavin Rees, Lee Selby, Gary Sykes or Anthony Crolla. Defeat was inevitable against such fighters because they are simply much better boxers. Other defeats were inevitable because the result was effectively pre-ordained as another step in a prospect’s education. And to educate, a teacher is required.
Mr Greaves advanced the career of countless fighters down through the years. He primarily delivered lessons in ring craft and the darker arts of the professional game that amateurs must learn from scratch. But when his skill and tactical nous ran out in a fight, he’d show a young buck the importance of heart. Despite all the advantages his opponents carried with them to the ring, very few managed to stop Johnny Greaves before the final bell.
“I am leaving, I am leaving
But the fighter still remains”
(The Boxer: Simon & Garfunkel)
Johnny orchestrated the chiming of his own final bell just under a year ago. Fittingly it rang out after four three minute rounds at York Hall in the heart of the east London’s boxing world and just a few miles down the road from his own East Ham manor. Less fitting was the result. Knowing it was his final bout, Greaves was released from the journeyman’s paradox; he no longer had to lose to win and so he decided to go out on his own terms. He won the fight.
It was his 100th contest. That was the magic number for Greaves. The figure that he believed would make his parents proud and give himself the sense of achievement he so longed for. Using his talents to provide for his wife and kids, entertain punters, give better fighters a run for their money and emerge from it all unscathed should have already had him swelling with pride but regardless, Greaves wanted the century.
He’s in the gym with his brother now, helping to breed the next great journeyman boxer to roam the British Isles, often for little more than petrol money for their trouble. As he says, he knows too much to simply disappear from the fight game. He’s a credit to himself, his family and his sport and promoters across the land will be relying upon the red blood cells that will flow from the Greaves Gym into the boxing bloodstream for many years to come.